As a matter of fact

2008-12-05 00:00

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has attracted a lot of recent publicity, unfortunately most of it adverse. The action taken against academics Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg has generated concerns about academic freedom at UKZN and, more generally, about the health of an important national asset.

In an article in The Witness (December 2), Professor Dasarath Chetty, pro-vice-chancellor of corporate relations at UKZN, defends the action taken against the academics and argues that, contrary to much that has been said in the media, the university is in fact in very good health and striding ahead.

His view is based mainly on UKZN’s research output, which he claims has increased substantially and ranks the university in second position in research output in South Africa. Both these contentions are true — but do these facts support the conclusions that Chetty reaches?

The point of his argument, although he does not explicitly say this, is that there is a relationship between higher research output and the good health of the university.

Chetty is, unfortunately, selectively using the facts. It is true that UKZN is number two in total research output, but then it also has a larger staff than many other universities. It is a little like comparing the national economic output of China, at $2 263 billion (R22 trillion), and Norway at $275 billion (R3 trillion), and concluding that China is a wealthier society than Norway.

Chetty’s conclusions, based on these facts, are not true. To give an honest assessment of research output at UKZN, the professor should compare the research output per staff member with that of other universities. As any academic will tell you, it takes at least two years to get research published, and that is only once the real work has been done.

It generally takes at least a year for good research to be converted into an article that one could consider submitting for possible publication. And it takes time to do fieldwork, which you would do only after you have identified an issue for research and acquired the necessary resources. So we are talking of a long gestation period.

The data that Chetty is using is probably that of research output for 2007, the latest available data in South Africa. So we are really looking at the output of work done in 2003 and 2004 and possibly much earlier, when perhaps UKZN was not quite the place that it is today.

The research output we are seeing today is a useful indicator of the state of the university some years ago and not its present state of health.

So why might UKZN’s research output have risen? Because it is a wonderful place? Perhaps, but here are some other possible reasons for the improved performance, which may not accord with Chetty’s conclusions. The university’s academics, increasingly frustrated with the state of the university, may be withdrawing from general university life and concentrating only on their research publications.

It may even be, given the timelines involved in academic publishing, that the last days of the old universities of Natal and Durban-Westville were, in fact, their peak and now, a few years later, we are seeing the figures for research output of that period.

Two explanations seem the most plausible to me. First, the university’s research policy — in fact developed in the final years of the erstwhile University of Natal — creates a major economic incentive for research publications by paying substantial research monies to academics who publish.

In other words, being reasonably rational, academics are publishing to earn financial rewards. Second, research publication is often a collaborative endeavour. As UKZN academics become increasingly linked into national and some international research initiatives, and since national and international research output is generally increasing, UKZN may be benefiting from such a “pull” factor.

It is probably fair to say that given the scale and difficulties of merging two institutions of the size and different cultures of the universities of Natal and Durban-Westville and all of the complexities of transformation, it has been remarkable that the staff of the merged universities have managed to increase research output and to bring in large grants for new research initiatives.

Were Chetty to frame the issue in this more sanguine manner, his last word may not have accused (some) staff of being “lazy”. Instead, he would have highlighted the fact that, under very trying circumstances and against all the odds, academics at UKZN have worked extremely hard and increased research output. He might then be more respectful toward the university’s academics.

Contrary to Chetty, R. W. Johnson in a Durban newspaper recently argued that UKZN is in dire straits.

He argues that the University of Natal “peaked” in the eighties and it has been pretty much downhill since then, partly because the place became a “UDF zone”, marginalising other voices and views.

His view of the eighties simply does not accord with my experiences (I began working at the University of Natal in 1986).

Sure, there were some pockets of scholarly excellence, but it was no top-rate research university. And it was also certainly no “UDF zone”.

I operated very much on the margins of the university and from there, the mainstream of Natal University appeared to be a typical liberal university of that time —mostly white, and mostly an old boys’ club, for the most part neither interested in nor terribly concerned about what was happening outside its immediate constituency.

But for much of its history, it did have one very special quality, which is critical for the success of any university. It most often ignored but nevertheless allowed little pockets of unusual, problematic, dissenting, troublesome — and even slightly embarrassing for the leadership at the time — initiatives and viewpoints to exist, and some even to flourish and grow.

From these little pockets emerged Steve Biko and Rick Turner, whose ideas were probably the most influential contributions that the university has made to South Africa, the Wages Commission, and later the Congress of South African Trade Unions (whose founding congress was held at the University of Natal) and much, much more.

For all its problems, the leadership understood that ignoring and sometimes creating and nurturing spaces for dissent is really what universities are about. Does Chetty understand this and what it implies for university leadership? One implication is that it requires a leadership not interested in making grandiose claims but rather one that is humble, understands its role as supporting academics, is in touch with the concerns of academics and students and, most important, allows — even nurtures — views that are contrary to its own.

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